Air Force conservation programs score widespread victories

  • Published
  • By Jennifer Schneider
  • Air Force Center for Engineering and the Environment Public Affairs
The Air Force is trustee to more than eight million acres of land, water and air assets, and is home to more than 70 threatened and endangered species.

Stewardship of these resources, in conjunction with sustainment of critical military mission activities, is a key priority for conservation programs across the Air Force, officials said.

Program achievements during fiscal 2010 were widespread, with many accomplishments in support of endangered species.

One of the installations achieving program victories in 2010 was Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. Measures taken by program officials there have resulted in population increases for both the Okaloosa darter and the red-cockaded woodpecker.

The darter relies on clear water streams, and approximately 95 percent of the total remaining population of the tiny endangered fish resides on the base. Base officials' efforts to abate erosion at stream crossings and improve crossing structures in critical habitat areas have resulted in a population increase and a determination by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to down-list the species from "endangered" to "threatened" status.

The proposed rule is currently under review and will likely be published as a final rule in the federal register in the near future, according to base officials.

"It was up to the Air Force to make it or break it for this species," said Bruce Hagedorn, a supervisory biologist at Eglin AFB. "This was a monumental victory. It is the first vertebrate species down-listed solely by actions on a military installation."

The victory is the result of hard work and the implementation of innovative measures, such as creating and installing a sky-lighted culvert on Eglin AFB's golf course. The well-lit culvert encourages fish to travel through it while still allowing golfers to traverse the course.

Eglin AFB officials also made strides in protecting another endangered species on base: the red-cockaded woodpecker. Old-growth longleaf pine trees on the installation are the preferred habitat for the bird, and Eglin AFB's forest represents the largest contiguous tract of old-growth longleaf pine in the world.

Wildlife biologists at Eglin AFB have mapped, monitored and protected existing woodpecker clusters and created new nest sites for population expansion by drilling tree cavities.

Foresters implement periodic controlled burns and use timber sales to maintain and enhance the landscape of mature longleaf pines with an open understory that is preferred by the woodpeckers.

"Controlled burning is our single most important management tool," Mr. Hagedorn said. "People don't tend to think of forestry and burning and cutting down trees as going together, but it is very important after decades of fire suppression. The forest is dominated by pine trees, but they tend to get encroached on by oaks without controlled burning."

Controlled burns support the mission by reducing the quantity and density of hazardous fuels that may ignite from munitions testing activity on the range, according to Kevin Porteck, a natural resources subject-matter expert at the Air Force Center for Engineering and the Environment. When range operations inadvertently start a fire, the resulting fires are of lower intensity and easier to control.

The Barry M. Goldwater Range in southwestern Arizona is also home to endangered species. The range provides an important landscape for military pilot training, while also supporting habitat for the Sonoran pronghorn antelope.

Long-term drought conditions caused the antelope's population to crash to a low of only around 20 animals in 2002. Since that time, management techniques and a collaborative partnership between the Air Force, Marine Corps, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Arizona Game and Fish Department have led to an increase in the population, with a current estimate of 68 free-ranging animals and 52 in a semi-captive breeding facility. At least 25 fawns were born in 2010.

"The biggest effort was construction of a semi-captive breeding pen, which encompasses a square mile," said Daniel Garcia, the chief of Environmental Science Management at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. "The greatest threat is fawn survival. In other parts of the country, females typically deliver twins in early spring and wean in two months, giving the fawns all summer to fatten up for winter. In Arizona, the fawns are weaned when it is blistering hot with no rain for months. The intent with the breeding pens is to get them through their first summer. When we turn them loose, they have graduated from the 'Headstart Program' and are ready to go."

Plans are underway to establish a second population in a separate location, possibly at the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona, to limit the impacts of potential disease and other factors on the population.

In partnership with the Ventura office of the USFWS, the Point Reyes Bird Observatory Conservation Science and the Western Foundation for Vertebrate Zoology, at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., was awarded the 2010 Coastal America Award. The Coastal America Partnership Award recognizes teams throughout the U.S. that demonstrate outstanding efforts to restore and protect coastal environments.

Vandenberg AFB officials are responsible for 42 miles of California coastline and manage the protection of 15 federally listed threatened and endangered species.

According to Rhys Evans, the natural resources lead at Vandenberg AFB, an important biodiversity goal is to promote the population growth of the California Least Tern, a seabird on the endangered species list, while maintaining the health of the surrounding ecosystem.

To accomplish this objective, Vandenberg AFB officials established a Least Tern Management Team, which works collaboratively to accomplish management of this endangered species.

Base officials provide funding for the team, and they erected and maintain an electric fence around the colony.

PRBO Conservation Science biologists conduct daily population and productivity monitoring, while the Western Foundation for Vertebrate Zoology personnel engage in non-lethal removal of predators, and USFWS officials coordinate with all of the partners on the adaptive management of this resource.

While increasing population numbers was a goal for some natural infrastructure programs last year, Air Force Academy officials were tackling the opposite problem. Rising populations of mountain pine beetles have ravaged more than four million acres of lodgepole and ponderosa pine across Colorado, but proactive measures taken by the Academy team have successfully prevented the school's trees from suffering the same fate.

"We took an aggressive stance and are very optimistic," said Diane Strohm, a forester and natural resource planner at the Academy. "The forest here is spectacular; if we are not vigilant and proactive, we could lose it."

Efforts to curtail an epidemic included combing the Academy with intensive field surveys to locate infested trees and promptly removing the trees to prevent further spread. The forestry staff there stepped up the forest thinning program as well, focusing on densely stocked forests that were at high risk for beetle attack due to heavy competition for water, nutrients and light.

Approximately 300 infested trees were removed in 2007 and only 12 in 2010.

Ms. Strohm said the Academy could have lost as many as 8,000 trees by this summer if these measures had not been taken.

"Years of fire suppression and a crushing, prolonged drought were a recipe for disaster," Ms. Strohm said. "Mountain pine beetles are an endemic part of the ecosystem and take out weakened trees. By enhancing tree vigor, forest thinning bolsters the residual trees' ability to repel bark beetle attack by pitching out the offending insects."

Air Force officials forecast widespread fiscal 2011 conservation program accomplishments, which underscore Air Force officials' dedication to integrating environmental stewardship and military mission capabilities.